Over dinner the other night, conversation dwelled on the difference between hoaxes and frauds, be they literary, scientific, or journalistic. We talked about the most recent, that of A Million Little Pieces, the best-selling book by James Frey that Oprah Winfrey inaugurated with her book club this past October. Supposedly a true story about Frey’s recovery from drug and alcohol addiction, allegations now circulate that Frey invented many of his narrative punches.
Among the accusers, the widely-visited The Smoking Gun website here has announced that weeks of investigation into court records, police reports and other documents has turned up many falsehoods in Frey’s phenomenal account. Frey denounces his critics as “the latest attempt to discredit me” at his website here.
My interest in the scandal was not the same as my dinner companions, who considered it unethical on the part of the publishing house to have published a book that is claimed as true when in fact it wasn’t. Their argument, to which I am partly sympathetic, is that a story of addiction and recovery is read by people who care that there is truth to the possibility of recovery (and indeed rich monetary desserts) after such long personal and physical struggle. In such cases (as distinguished from stories, say, only about love or adventure?), the book publisher and the author have special responsibilities.
I was interested in this hoax (fraud?) because it illuminated the still-vibrant stake in being able to tell the difference between truth and fiction, reality and imagination. But in the realm of literature and literary studies (and film, of course), it is commonplace to glean lessons of life from stories that are obviously made up. Do we care that Crime and Punishment is a work of fiction when we teach it in classes on philosophy, justice or ethics? Are the lessons of To Kill a Mockingbird diluted because Harper Lee invented Atticus Finch? Do those lessons change significantly were a teacher to announce that Harper Lee may have based some of the characters and plot of her novel on people from her Alabama home town? I have heard rumors to that effect, but I have a hard time believing that were they true, the legacy of To Kill a Mockingbird would change all that drastically.
So why do people care so much that James Frey may have made up some parts of his book? Think back to earlier “hoaxes”: Alan Sokal and the “Social Text” affair here; Sidd Finch, the rookie baseball player who, it was reported in a 1985 issue of Sports Illustrated, could throw a fast ball at 168 miles per hour, here; Stephen Glass, who fabricated sources and some articles while writing for the New Republic; A3G and her "self-outing" as a "he" discussed here on the blogosphere! As lawyers, we can distinguish the hoax with a moral (Sokal) from the April Fool’s joke (Finch). And we can say, likely with ease, that Glass as a journalist had an ethical obligation to other journalists and to his readers to report facts. But what of the moral outrage the followed A3G's revelation? Was it simple play, a sophisticated hoax, or does the misrepresentation border on breach? Fraud? If so, how does Frey “making it up," for example, differ from those literary autobiographers such as Gertrude Stein, Mary McCarthy, Sherwood Anderson and Roland Barthes, who also “took liberties” when telling their lives? Where does Frey’s obligation as a writer come from? Does it come from the genre category on the book jacket that says “nonfiction”? (If so, watch new categories spring up, say, one called “autobiographical fiction.”) Perhaps he breached his obligation based on his statement to his readers that the story he tells is true, a kind of oral promise? If so, these other more famous writers, with arguably much larger followings, were that much more in the wrong. And certainly, there is no detrimental reliance or materiality for a legal claim here.
But it is not a lawsuit Frey’s readers seek. Readers are disappointed because the special amazement that “reality” engenders has been lost. Reading A Million Little Pieces, you just can’t believe Frey endured the trauma he did. Reading it, and believing it, is much of the fun, the attraction. This is the same lure, I gather, of reality television. You watch it not because it is interesting in and of itself (who cares, really, what the renovated house will look like, if the nanny will get the kids to behave, who will lose the most weight?). We watch because it is actually happening. It is the voyeurism that attracts. But what do we learn? What do we know? I am pushed to ask: so what if it’s real? Crime and Punishment endures as a model lesson about individual responsibility and criminal justice, about the relation between retribution and forgiveness. And it is good entertainment too. Perhaps the answer is that Frey is no Dostoevsky, and that is enough.